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a blog by Fr. Stuart MacDonald, JCL,

Ought Biden and Broten Be Excommunicated?

Comments on the issue of abortion by American Vice-President Joseph Biden and Ontario Education Minister Laurel Broten, both Catholics (at least reportedly so in the case of Broten), have raised questions about whether or not they are liable to penal sanction according to canon law.  Note immediately that we are not speaking of whether or not they should approach, or should be given, Holy Communion.  Cardinal Burke and Dr. Edward Peters have already explored those issues with erudition and profound insight. Here the question is whether or not Biden’s or Broten’s public comments, and/or  voting records, constitute delicts in the Church.

In a nutshell, the question is does the publicly oft-stated belief by a Catholic that a woman has a right to choose an abortion (i.e., as a Catholic I accept the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of life from the moment of conception, and on the sinfulness of abortion, but I do not think we can force others to accept that position by making abortion illegal) constitute an act of heresy (c. 751)?  Notice I did not say the delict of heresy.  In order to determine whether or not the delict has occurred, we must determine what constitutes the act of heresy.  If it is a heresy to believe that we may not take away a woman’s right to choose, then certainly Biden and Broten have committed the delict.  But is it a heresy?, in an article on the Education Minister’s outrageous claim that taking away a woman’s right to choose could constitute the worst form of misogyny, asserts that the “Catechism of the Catholic Church is very clear that pro-life teaching necessitates taking away the so-called ‘woman’s right to choose’”.  It then goes on to make a connection between respecting human life from the moment of conception to the penalty for procuring an abortion.  Not so fast!  While LIfeSite is to be commended for making us aware of important issues, they are doing a disservice to the Church by such shoddy theology and canonical thinking.  The fact that a Catholic may sin gravely in her pro-choice beliefs, public statements or voting records, does not mean she is liable to excommunication according to c. 1398 (abortion).

Be careful here.  We are not talking about the morality of abortion, we are talking about obligations of Catholic in public office.  Heresy is the obstinate denial of a divinely revealed truth.  Do the moral norms concerning the civic responsibilities of Catholics constitute divinely revealed truths? By voting for an unjust law is divinely revealed truth denied?  Perhaps.  That is a question for moral theologians, not canonists.  Blessed Pope John Paul II taught that it is licit to vote for a law which allows abortion, but limits its previous availability (Evangelium vitae, no. 74). These are difficult issues.  The morality of the grave obligation of public officials to bear witness to their Catholic faith is distinct from the morality of abortion.  To deny the immorality of abortion is certainly a heresy.  To deny the obligation of bearing public witness to the faith is not so clearly an instance of heresy.  It’s a clear instance of sin, but it certainly needs to be argued how it constitutes heresy.

The point is that, while people are rightly upset by politicians, objectively not in full communion with the Church, spouting their muddled thinking with no consequence, it is wrong to make the jump that they ought to be excommunicated.  That’s not the law of the Church as it exists now.

Are there other penal remedies available?  Most certainly.  Canon 1399 exists to provide for those cases not specifically envisioned in the law in which divine or canon law is broken and the gravity of the situation demands the repair or prevention of scandal.  Certainly it is a cause for concern when the Vice-President of the United States peddles his beliefs that his Catholic faith is merely a private affair.  How many Catholics has he led down the same fuzzy-thinking path?  That’s scandal in the canonical sense.  Is excommunication an answer, even in this case?  Well, ultimately that’s up to the Ordinary.  But beware that canon law also states that censures, like excommunication, are to be enacted  with the greatest moderation and only for the more grave offenses (c. 1318).  The Code also states that a penal procedure is to be undertaken only when no other remedy, pastoral, canonical or otherwise, would be effective (c. 1341).

It is important to be clear about the law.  Emotions run high when important people say ridiculous things.  But we must be careful not to jump to hasty conclusions.  Of course, I’m always open to correction

Not Exactly Canonical but Important

Several months ago, the government of the Province of Ontario passed a law (known as Bill 13) about bullying in schools — at least that’s it in a nutshell.  In Ontario, there are two publicly funded schools systems: one Catholic (or as we say sometimes, the Separate School System) the other, well, public (the Public School System, as we say).  It has a long, complicated history that goes back to the founding of Canada, and the English/French, Catholic/Protestant issues.  In any case, there exist in Ontario Catholic schools funded by tax-payers that go from JK to Gr. 12.  Apart from the myriad of problems which plague us in trying to maintain our Catholic identity and fidelity in our modern Catholic world, the schools are Catholic.  Masses are celebrated, prayers are said, crucifixes are on the walls and the curriculum is Catholic.  Until now.

With the passage of Bill 13, Catholic schools must, by law, prevent discrimination of, and provide a safe environment for, people with same-sex attraction, even when they self-identify as gay, with all of those ramifications.  The Bishops of Ontario have been working assiduously to navigate this minefield.  Last Wednesday, the minefield suddenly became much more dangerous.

The Minister of Education for the Province of Ontario made comments to the press suggesting that Catholic schools should not be teaching that abortion is wrong because it is a violation of the government’s newly-enacted anti-bullying legislation.  “We do not allow and we’re very clear with the passage of Bill 13 that Catholic teachings cannot be taught in our schools that violates human rights and which brings a lack of acceptance to participation in schools,” she said when asked if it’s okay for the schools to encourage pro-life rallies.

The Minister stated: “Bill 13 has in it a clear indication of ensuring that our schools are safe, accepting places for all our students,”  “That includes of LGBTQ students. That includes young girls in our school. Bill 13 is about tackling misogyny, taking away a woman’s right to choose could arguably be one of the most misogynistic actions that one could take.”

Those are serious statements and these are serious times.  As I am writing this, I received news that the Premier of Ontario resigned last night, not over this issue.

Those are not canonical considerations, stricte dictu, and I have never intended this blog to turn into mere commentary about Catholic issues; however, this issue does affect the inherent right of the Church, independent of any human authority, to preach the Gospel (c. 747.1) and to proclaim moral principles (c. 747.2)  I jokingly mention to my bishop occasionally that he gets a pointy hat and big bucks to solve these problems.  But this is no joking matter.  We need to pray for the bishops of Ontario.  This is the stuff of saints and martyrs.

Rector Anecdote

This week, one of the priests of the diocese was ordained bishop.  I noted with some satisfaction the following excerpt from the Holy Father’s bull nominating the new bishop:

To Our beloved Son…of the clergy of the Diocese of Saint Catharines in Ontario, where he has been serving as…Parish Priest of the Cathedral Church…

Even though we’ve been calling him the rector of the Cathedral for years , the Holy Father, who is the Supreme Legislator, knows that, canonically speaking, he was a pastor.  (Still is!, just of a different sort.)  There will be exceptions, of course, but most priests running cathedral churches have the full power of a pastor because they are one.

These pages are likely to be silent for the next month.  I finish up at my parish this weekend and then leave for a some holidays before I begin my duties at Wyoming Catholic College.  Once I am settled into my digs, I’ll start blogging again.


A reader asked me to explain canon 776.  It was good for me to re-read this canon, as a departing pastor, because it confirms something that I have sought to do for the last seven years.  Here is the text of the canon:

Can. 776 By virtue of his function, a pastor is bound to take care of the catechetical formation of adults, youth, and children, to which purpose he is to use the help of the clerics attached to the parish, of members of institutes of consecrated life and of societies of apostolic life, taking into account the character of each institute, and of lay members of the Christian faithful, especially of catechists. None of these are to refuse to offer their help willingly unless they are legitimately impeded. The pastor is to promote and foster the function of parents in the family catechesis mentioned in can. 774, §2.

Can. 774 §1. Under the direction of legitimate ecclesiastical authority, solicitude for catechesis belongs to all members of the Church according to each one’s role.

§2. Parents above others are obliged to form their children by word and example in faith and in the practice of Christian life; sponsors and those who take the place of parents are bound by an equal obligation.

Specifically, the reader wished to know what is meant by the obligation of members of the Church being obliged to assist with catechesis unless they are legitimately impeded.  It’s a very interesting question.  As we see from canon 774, part of catechesis is simply the way we live and speak.  Obviously, every member of Christ’s faithful is obliged to live a life worthy of their calling.  This canon is pointing out that the pastor, specifically, must ensure that the souls entrusted to him receive formation in the faith.  Obviously he cannot do that alone: he needs help.  The canon points out that parochial vicars, religious, and lay people may all be called upon to assist the pastor in this important work.  The are to do so willingly.  It would be a rough life for a pastor is one of the priests assigned to his parish refused to prepare children for their first Holy Communion, for example.  In this day of priest shortages, there is a greater onus on the lay faithful to take up their rightful role in catechesis.  Therefore, if the pastor asks you to help, then please help!  How could one be legitimately impeded?  All sorts of ways.  A religious sister who teaches full-time in a Catholic school, might not have extra time to take on catechism classes for the pastor: she has other obligations with her community.  A father of several children, might not be free on Thursday evenings to assist with RCIA.  I don’t think the canon is suggesting that the pastor has the right to compel the lay faithful to do his bidding in this regard; rather, it is suggesting that everyone should see it as a duty to help in catechesis and the spreading of the faith.  That’s off the top of my head.  There are probably many more important nuances.  Unfortunately, all my canon law books are packed in boxes right now.

Of Crime and Punishment

I’m sure we’ve all been reading with some sense of horror the news about the publication of private letters and documents allegedly stolen by the Holy Father’s butler.  Leaving aside the details, it is interesting to note that the Holy See has a whole process of criminal law. The butler has been charged, and was held in custody at the behest of the Vatican City State’s Promoter of Justice (not to be confused with the Promoters of Justice of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and the Apostolic Signatura).  Thankfully, we don’t hear about it often; however, as an independent entity, the Vatican functions just like any other country with police, courts, judges and all.

In a similar, but distinct, vein, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a notification last week regarding a book on sexuality by Sr. Margaret A. Farley, R.S.M.  The Congregation warned the faithful that Sr. Farley’s book, Just Love. A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, “is not in conformity with the teaching of the Church.”  It is a brilliantly nuanced document which deserves careful reading.  What is interesting, from a canonical perspective, is that Sr. Farley does not seem to be disciplined in any way.  Her book, “affirms positions that are in direct contradiction with Catholic teaching in the field of sexual morality,” and consequently, “cannot be used as a valid expression of Catholic teaching.”  But she, as a result of publishing her views and refusing to clarify them to the satisfaction of the Church, has not been penalised publicly.

Canon 751 defines heresy as, “the obstinate denial or doubt, after baptism, of a truth which must be believed by divine and catholic faith.”  So, then, what is a truth which must be believed by divine and catholic faith?  Canon 750 gives us the answer (my emphasis):

Those things are to be believed by divine and catholic faith which are contained in the word of God as it has been written or handed down by tradition, that is, in the single deposit of faith entrusted to the Church, and which are at the same time proposed as divinely revealed either by the solemn magisterium of the Church, or by its ordinary and universal magisterium, which is manifested by the common adherence of Christ’s faithful under the guidance of the sacred magisterium. All are therefore bound to shun any contrary doctrines.

The question becomes, do any of the propositions held by Sr. Farley constitute an act of heresy?  And if they do, is she punishable by canon 1364 which states that a heretic incurs a latae sententiae excommunication?  The reason I pose the question is because it is sometimes heard, “why doesn’t the Church excommunicate dissenters and heretics?”  The answer is: she does! Just not in the manner in which some would like.  There are no grand processions of the Inquisitor, with candles turned upside down to the cries of anathema sit!

The notification points out that some of Sr. Farley’s opinions contradict the Magisterium of the Church (the authentic one, not the Magisterium of Nuns – of Fr. Z fame).  Her opinion on masturbation contradicts the Magisterium’s “course of a constant tradition;” her opinions, on homosexual acts being justifiable, contradict tradition, based on Sacred Scripture, which teaches that such acts are intrinsically disordered.

Now this is really a question for a theologian; but, could we say that these Church teachings which Sr. Farley’s opinions contradict, are to be believed by divine and catholic faith?   Remember not only must the teaching be handed down by tradition but it must also be proposed as divinely revealed. To answer that is the competence of a theologian.  If the teachings on masturbation and homosexual acts are considered to be divinely revealed, then Sr. Farley, in holding contrary opinions which she has refused to abjure, is guilty of the sin of heresy.  Here we must distinguish.  Has she committed only the sin of heresy? Or also the delict of heresy?  Every delict is a sin, but not every sin is a delict.  If she has committed the sin of heresy (in other words, in her mind and will she refuses to believe with divine and catholic faith the Church’s teaching on masturbation and homosexual acts) and has coupled that with manifesting the sin outwardly (by publishing her opinions in a book), then she has committed the delict of heresy (all things being equal).  In virtue of canon 1364, she would be excommunicated.  The Church doesn’t need to declare it publicly; although, the Church could.  The excommunication happens automatically.

Why the Church has chosen not to publicly declare an excommunication, which it threatened to do in the case of Father Tissa Balasuriya, OMI, is not mine to answer.  Perhaps it is connected to whether or not these teachings of the Church are divinely revealed or not.  Perhaps it is a prudential decision of the Church. But the point is that the Church does deal with dissenters.  It has now warned the faithful that her book is not an expression of Catholic teaching.  If she is guilty of heresy, then she is excommunicated.  She has been dealt with.

Just as criminal law (even in the Vatican) is complicated, so, too, is canon law in these matters.  The Church doesn’t throw around her power, she is a mother – firm when she needs to be, prudent in her judgment, but always seeking the truth for the good of her children.  And let’s thank God that there are competent people handling all these difficult situations.  And don’t forget to pray for them, too.  Suddenly, the cranky parishioner who wants to know why the flowers aren’t arranged differently in the sanctuary seems so much easier to handle!

Cathedral Rectors

It has been a busy few weeks for me in the parish and it looks like things will only get busier as Forty Hours Devotions begin this evening in preparation for our Corpus Christi procession.  Then it will be on to closing school Masses and graduations with a few weddings thrown in before I begin packing my belongings to undertake a new assignment.  So, in the meantime, I will answer a few questions that have come my way and make a plug for a fine group of men with whom I spent a few days visiting: the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius in Chicago.  I was with them for some tutoring in how to celebrate the Missa cantata in the extraordinary form.  The canons are a vibrant young community involved in many activities.  One of them is offering workshops which train priests and seminarians how to celebrate and serve the extraordinary form.  It is an invaluable service to the Church.  They do it well, without any fussiness, without any pretension, simply out of a love for the liturgy in both forms (both of which they offer with extraordinary splendour and beauty in their parish church.)  You can find more on their web site:

One reader asked me about the duties of a Cathedral rector.  This title is a bit of a misnomer.  Sometimes the priest who is given charge of the Cathedral is called a rector.  It seems to be an honourary title because he is the pastor of the Cathedral parish.  In fact, several distinctions need to be made.  The canons do not expressly deal with this subject as I will try to explain.

Canon law neither defines a cathedral nor deals directly with it.  Cathedrals are the places where the bishop takes possession of his diocese (c. 382), in which the diocesan bishop is to celebrate Mass often (c. 389), where ordinations are to be celebrated (c. 1011), and where the funeral and burial of bishops are to occur (cc. 1178, 1242).  As we can see, cathedrals are mentioned all over the code, but only in passing when dealing with other subjects.

The cathedral church, besides being the seat of the bishop, can also be a parish church.  It doesn’t have to be, but it often is.  If the cathedral is also a parish, then, properly speaking, a pastor is appointed to it.  If the cathedral church is not a parish, then, properly speaking, a rector is appointed to it.  Here the Code helps us out a bit (cc. 556-563).

Rectors according to c. 556, “are here understood to be priests to whom is entrusted the care of some church which is neither a parochial nor a capitular church, nor a church attached to the house of a religious community or a society of apostolic life which holds services in it.”  Now that’s a mouthful.  What does it mean?

Parish churches are clear enough.  I don’t believe there are any capitular churches in North America; they are more common in Europe where canons (people, not laws!) are appointed.  A chapter of canons is a college of priests who have the duty of celebrating the more solemn liturgical functions in a particular church (c. 503).  You see canons in the major basilicas of Rome, for example. They are often vested in mantelleta and biretta for mass or vespers.  Religious orders often have chapels (some the size of basilicas) where the faithful go to Mass.  For example, we could think of a church on the campus of a Catholic university campus, like Notre Dame.  It’s not a parish church, but people go there.  It would have a rector, not a pastor, in charge.  In other words, a rector is the priest in charge of a church which is not a parish, or a religious ‘chapel.’

A rector is limited in what he can do.  Because his church is located within the territory of a parish, he must not interfere in the work or authority of the pastor.  For example, he may not baptise; administer Viaticum, Confirmation in danger of death, or Anointing of the Sick; solemnise Marriage; conduct funerals; bless the baptismal font at Easter; or conduct processions outside the Church without the consent of the pastor.  His church, in other words, is not to be a rival church to the parish.  Perhaps the church is a shrine of some sort where the faithful gather.  The rector looks after it; however, and this is a good reminder, those faithful still belong to a parish.  The shrine and its liturgical functions ought not to substitute for participation in one’s proper parish.

Now, back to canon 556 and its definition of a rector.  Did you notice that little word, “here” (hic in the official text)?  Rectors are “here” understood to mean…  In other words, rector is understood to mean something different “there” in other places in the Code.  Unfortunately, there are no “other” places in the Code.  Some poor editing of the Code?  Perhaps.  Is there another definition of rector that somehow never made it in the Code, like a Cathedral Rector?  Maybe, but there doesn’t seem to be evidence for that.  So a rector is in charge of a church which is not a parish.

To answer the question put to me by a new “rector” of a Cathedral, “What are my duties?”, I would answer, that your duties are those of a pastor because that is, in fact, what you are (unless your Cathedral is NOT also a parish.)

How irregular: Catholic priests functioning as Anglican clergy

A reader sent me a link to an story about a diocese seeking the dismissal from the clerical state of three of its priests who abandoned the ministry and the Church and who are working as Episcopalian (Anglican, in Canada) clergy.  It’s not such an unusual occurence.  In my diocese we have a similar case.  The young priest left the Church, had his Orders ‘received’ by the Anglican bishop, and has set up shop as a pastor in one of the local Anglican communities.  Naturally, it causes scandal among the faithful.  So what is the status of such priests?

Well, first of all, they are irregular to exercise their Orders (c. 1044.1.2) because of any or all of heresy, apostasy or schism.  Furthermore, they are excommunicated for the same reasons (c. 1364.1).  In both cases, they are forbidden to perform any priestly ministry.  IN the latter case, they are forbidden from even receiving the sacraments.

Normally, in the penal law of the Church, to dismiss a cleric from the clerical state, a judicial process (a penal trial) is necessary (cf. c.1364.2 and 1334.2).  For all sorts of reasons, it is not always possible or feasible to hold a process.  We learned that the hard way in dealing with the clergy abuse cases; however, it is true in other cases as well.  Therefore, the Holy Father, granted some special procedures to be followed for the dismissal of clerics.  The American diocese has chosen to make use of those procedures so that the guilty priests can be dismissed from the clerical state. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t priests anymore, it just removes them from a special group of membership in  the Church — the clergy.  Further, it confirms the prohibition to use their sacred powers already in place by the irregularity and excommuncation.  If ever they repent, they can have the excommunication lifted, and even the irregularity dispensed (although there would be no reason to do that) and they would remain as lay members of the Church.

I would be willing to bet the former Catholic priests don’t give a hoot whether they are considered clergy in the Catholic Church or not.  It’s a sad situation.  But for the Catholic faithful it is probably good that they are dismissed from the clerical state.  Some Catholics don’t know any better and are heard to say, “Oh well, too bad about Fr. X but at least he’s a still a priest in the Episcopalian parish.”  Dismissal would help such people to understand that it’s not okay that Father has abandoned his ministry in the Church.